The Liberal Democrat manifesto was launched yesterday with an air of realistic, if not defeatist, certainty to the next few months. While the party’s green commitments are highly aspirational, even superseding Labour’s (Environment Analyst 17-May-17), Tim Farron’s frank honesty into his party’s hopes in the election spoils take the shine off somewhat.
In the opening lines of the manifesto he says: "In every other manifesto, a Liberal Democrat leader has set out a vision for government. However, I want to make a different case to the British people." He goes on: "To be clear Theresa May’s Conservative party is on course to win this election. Unless we make a stand, they will walk away with a landslide."
While the Lib Dems have become known for a rational, sensible, compromising approach to getting things done - this might be a little too rational for many. Long gone are the days of David Steel when in 1981 he said "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government". Farron’s stance is probably not what liberals would want to hear but it's also probably true.
Farron is not making a case for government, he is making a case for opposition.
While his defeatist honesty may not play too well with many in the centre-left, the Lib Dems have an ace up their sleeve which could help them. They are now the only major party which still opposes Brexit – or at least promises to give the public a final say on the negotiated deal – which should at least make the 16.1 million people who voted to stay in the EU in June last year stop and consider them. Whether this makes them ‘enemies of the state’ or ‘anti-democracy’ – as some would claim – they are at least making a stand.
Environment Analyst’s series of interviews, features and webinars before (EA 10-Jun-16) and after the EU referendum (EA 16-Mar-17) served to highlight that many involved in the environment business sector were not overly keen on the idea of Brexit. Legislation such as the Water Framework Directive, Landfill Directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive have lifted the UK from its 1980s position as ‘the dirty man of Europe’ - a position the Lib Dems’ claim the Conservatives are trying to take us back to. The party is clearly a little annoyed that as soon as its role in the coalition government came to an end in 2015, a huge swathe of cuts were made to renewable subsidies, the green investment bank was sold off and the zero carbon homes scheme was scrapped.
Should the Lib Dems pull off a monumental feat of electoral wizardry and form a government (note they have stated their refused to form a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives), they want to pass five green laws: a Green Transport Act; a Zero-Carbon Britain Act; a Nature Act; a Green Buildings Act and a Zero Waste Act. Lets run through the main points of each one.
A Green Transport Act and Air Quality Plan will aim to tackle air pollution which kills an estimated 40,000 people and costs the NHS £15 billion a year. This will include a diesel scrappage scheme and a ban on the sale of diesel cars and small vans by 2025. Ultra-low emission zones will be rolled out to ten towns and cities and all private hire vehicles and buses in urban areas will run on ultra low emission fuel within the next five years.
The Zero Carbon Britain Act would target a net greenhouse gas emission reduction of 80% by 2040 and 100% by 2050, while the party would continue to support the Paris Agreement. It would aim to generate 60% of electricity from renewables by 2030 - restoring support for solar PV and onshore wind. This does seem more realistic but less ambitious than Labour’s pledge to source 60% of energy from renewables by 2030 (EA 17-May-17).
The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon would be given the go-ahead and other technology such as electric car infrastructure, energy storage, smart grids and hydrogen technology will be supported. An "ambitious" carbon capture and storage programme will also be backed. Unlike Labour, the Lib Dems will not ban fracking but will "oppose" it. They will also effectively rule out nuclear new-build by only backing it if it can be subsidy free.
The Green Buildings Act would set energy efficiency targets such as every home in England reaching an energy rating of B and C by 2035, and ensuring four million homes are highly energy efficient (band C) by 2022. They will restore the zero carbon homes standard and extend it to non-domestic buildings by 2022.
The Nature Act would put the Natural Capital Committee on a statutory footing, set legally-binding natural capital targets and empower the NCC to recommend actions to meet targets. One million acres of green space would be protected through a raft of new national park designations. A blue belt of marine protected areas would also be created. The act would include a promise is to plant one tree for every UK citizen over the next ten years and protect ancient woodlands.
The Zero Waste Act would set legally-binding targets for reducing net consumption of natural resources, establish a recycling target of 70% in England and extend food waste collections to 90% of home by 2022. There is also a pledge to reinstate the landfill tax escalator - something many in the waste industry would welcome given the flatlining of recycling rates since landfill tax started to rise alongside inflation.
From an infrastructure point of view the manifesto promises to spend an additional £100 billion on infrastructure. A house building rate of 300,000 per year would be set with a pledge to build them directly even if the market doesn’t deliver them itself. Like Labour, the Lib Dems would build ten new garden cities and require local authorities to plan for housing 15 years in advance. They would also back HS2, HS3 and Crossrail 2 and deliver the Transport for the North strategy, complete East West Rail between Oxford and Cambridge, and develop a strategic airport strategy. The party would remain opposed to the expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted instead favouring Birmingham and Manchester.
Perhaps a key difference between this manifesto and Labour’s is that the Liberal Democrats have at least provided more detail on how they would pay for all this: a 1p increase in income tax across the hoard, the return of the 20% corporation tax, anti-tax-avoidance measures and around £15 billion of borrowing. A costing document has been provided alongside the manifesto.
So while the detail is there, it is a shame the aspiration to govern isn’t.